Did you remember to take out the trash? You distinctly remember doing it, yet it’s still in the bin when you arrive home. False memories can also have devastating repercussions, especially for those who develop false memory syndrome as a defense against childhood trauma.
As you may have already surmised, I actually saw my father filling our Christmas stockings. He put me back to bed with the hope I wouldn’t remember seeing him in the middle of the night.
The next morning, rather than telling the truth, my parents corroborated my story. It took up a permanent place in my memory bank ever since. As an adult, I realize that Santa (probably) isn’t real. But the memory of seeing Santa is so real to me that it’s become part of my personal identity and helped shaped my worldview.
Because I believed I saw Santa when I was 5, I’ve always been open to believing in things you can’t necessarily see. If I hadn’t had this memory, I might not be so willing to believe in the unknown.
Turns out that’s not the only way the body can be a total traitor. Tricking your brain into fabricating memories is just one of the unsettling ways the body can betray you.
1. It can trick you into believing you have ghost hands.
Up to 95 percent of amputees report feeling some kind of phantom limb syndrome after losing a limb. Phantom limb syndrome occurs when people feel real sensation, like an itchy palm, in the limb that has been removed.
But did you know that phantom limb syndrome can occur in people who haven’t lost a limb?
Scientists call this phenomenon the rubber hand illusion. In a 1998 study, participants sat at a table with their right hand hidden from view, and a fake hand was placed on top of the table. When both the participant’s real hand and the fake hand were touched at the same time, 80 percent of the participants then believed the rubber hand was their real hand.
In subsequent studies, research showed that a rubber hand wasn’t even necessary for people to feel the sensation.
Researchers removed the fake hand and simply brushed the air where the hand had been.
“We discovered that most participants, within less than a minute, transfer the sensation of touch to the region of empty space where they see the paintbrush move, and experience an invisible hand in that position,” said researcher Arvid Guterstam, a neuroscientist at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.
2. It can cause you to see things—after you’ve lost your sight.
Similar to phantom limb syndrome, some people develop “phantom vision syndrome,” seeing vividly real colors, shapes, and objects after they’ve lost their sight. People who develop this phantom vision, also called Charles Bonnet syndrome (CBS), experience these visual hallucinations on a daily basis.
Bee, a woman who developed Charles Bonnet syndrome after a glaucoma diagnosis, thought she’d had too much coffee the first time she experienced a hallucination. She’d seen a wall of mud in the grocery store that seemed so real that she felt she couldn’t put an item back on the shelf.
CBS can occur in individuals who lose some or all of their vision due to diseases such as macular degeneration, glaucoma, or diabetic neuropathy.
Because these eye conditions typically strike people who are over the age of 60, CBS is often misdiagnosed as an early stage of dementia. But people with CBS do not exhibit any symptoms of dementia other than vivid hallucinations.
According to ophthalmologist Jonathan Trobe, “The brain is doing a mash-up of stored visual memories.” Rods and cones in the eyes cease to function, and the brain essentially invents images to make up for the lack of actual input. Thus the hallucinations.
3. It can take away your ability to understand language.
“Art, you know that thing on the car—the thing on the wheel?”
“What wheel? The steering wheel?”
“No, the one with the tire.”
“Well, what about it?”
“Well, I noticed the middle part is gone.”
“You mean the hubcap?”
“Yes, the hubcap.”
Seven sentences to pinpoint the word “hubcap.”
Everyone has had that moment when they just can’t think of a simple word. It’s incredibly frustrating, and for Marion Rasmussen, it was everyday life, thanks to aphasia.
Aphasia is a neurological condition that can impair language comprehension as well as the ability to read and write. Aphasia is almost always the result of brain damage and can range from a mild annoyance—such as forgetting the word for “toast”—to completely robbing a person of the ability to communicate while leaving their intellect intact.
There is no cure for aphasia, but treatment is aimed at improving a patient’s language and communication skills through a variety of therapies.
4. It can leave you unable to feel pain.
Ask any woman who has given birth, and she’ll probably tell you that the inability to feel pain sounds like a dream come true. For people with congenital insensitivity to pain with anhidrosis (CIPA) like Ashlyn Blocker, though, it’s more like a nightmare.
Ashlyn was diagnosed with the disorder as a baby, but her first serious injury occurred when she placed her hand on a hot pressure washer and wasn’t fazed by the red blisters on her palm.
Ashlyn was just 3 years old.
CIPA is caused by mutationsAshlyn Blocker/Facebook